Subscribe to our newsletter for exclusive editorial emails from the Byline Times Team.
There’s a popular social media trend in which people watch glass bottles rolling down a set of stairs while waiting anxiously to see whether they will smash or not.
One Labour staffer at the party’s conference in Liverpool this week told Byline Times that a similar feeling is now gripping their party as they head ever closer back towards Government.
“We all keep waiting for it all to go completely wrong, but so far it just hasn’t”, they said.
This anxiety arose again on Tuesday when a protester stormed onto stage at the start of Keir Starmer’s conference speech and grabbed the Labour leader.
For a few painful seconds it felt like nobody was going to intervene, until eventually two female security guards dragged the man off stage. Yet far from setting him off course, Starmer used the moment to define his party as being about “protest and not power” and drew a huge ovation from the arena.
“If he thinks that’s going to bother me, then he doesn’t know me” Starmer quipped to further applause from the crowd.
For Starmer’s supporters, this moment encapsulated a consistent theme of his political career, which is that he has been repeatedly underestimated by his opponents.
While routinely dismissed as “boring”, and politically inept, his supporters are often frustrated that he has not been given credit for the successes Labour has made since he took over. In just a few short years Starmer has taken the party from being behind in the polls to being between fifteen and twenty points ahead. Meanwhile in Scotland the party now looks set to recover most of the seats it lost under previous leaders, with some polls even suggesting they could re-emerge as the largest party north of the border once again.
For his critics, this has little to do with the Labour leader, or the decisions he has made. As one former adviser to Corbyn put it to Byline Times “the truth is that he’s going to win, but he’s only going to win by default because of how terrible the Tories are. It’s not because of any enthusiasm for him”.
The polls do give some justification for this. Starmer’s approval ratings, although better than the Prime Minister’s, are still historically poor for an opposition leader heading towards Government. Meanwhile most opinion polls and focus groups suggest many voters are either hostile towards the Labour leader or unsure what, if anything, he really stands for.
Yet after three years in office, Starmer has already seen off two Conservative Prime Ministers and opinion polls suggest he is likely to see off a third when the general election finally comes around next year. And while it is fair to say that he has been handed plenty of assistance from a seemingly kamikaze Conservative party, he has also had to overcome some tricky obstacles of his own, including the pandemic, a potential police investigation and an inherently hostile British press which is only now just starting to give Labour a fairer hearing.
Even The Sun, which has historically been extremely hostile both to the party, and to Starmer specifically, is starting to soften.
Not everyone is happy about this of course. During his leadership campaign Starmer promised never to do interviews with the paper, which is still boycotted in Liverpool over its coverage of the Hillsborough disaster. Yet now the Labour leader regularly gives interviews to its reporters and even writes articles within its pages.
“They’ll never endorse us, but at least now they’re listening”, one source close to the Labour leader told Byline Times.
For Starmer’s critics this is evidence of a dishonest approach to politics, yet for his supporters, it merely shows how determined he is to finally get Labour back into Government, whatever it takes. Far from winning by default, Starmer’s supporters say he has actually followed through on a carefully orchestrated plan.
As one party insider put it, “at some point people will have to start to accept that this isn’t just luck. He actually does know what he’s doing.”
To date the defining feature of Starmer’s approach has been about reassurance. Whether it’s reassuring Jewish voters that the party has no tolerance for antisemitism, or reassuring the business leaders who flocked to Labour conference this week that he will not impose big new taxes or regulations on them, Starmer has taken a consistently “safety first” approach to politics that has sought to persuade people that while life would significantly improve under a Labour Government, there will be little in the way of “radical” change.
This approach was more than evident in the Labour leaders’s conference speech, which contained vanishingly little policy but acres of rhetoric about ending what he described as “the age of insecurity” under the Conservatives. In one compelling passage, he told the hall that under a Labour Government voters would be able to stop worrying so much about politics and actually get on with enjoying their lives.
“Conference, we have to be a Government that takes care of the big questions so working people have the freedom to enjoy what they love. More time, more energy, more possibility, more life”, he told Labour delegates.
“It could be football. It could be fishing, or just quiet time with your family. But we all need that, conference. We all need the ability to look forward – to move forward – free from anxiety. That’s what getting our future back really means.”
After a decade of often extreme political turbulence in the UK, this is a potentially powerful message to voters.
Don’t miss a story
However, not everybody is entirely convinced by it.
“I totally get what he’s doing”, one Labour MP told Byline Times. “But there’s still part of me that wants him to be a lot bolder and to be out there socking it to the Tories every day, but I guess that’s just not him.”
The limits of the approach could also be seen during the recent Uxbridge by-election where Labour lost despite national polls suggesting it should have taken the seat. In the run up to polling day, Starmer and other senior figures began to worry that anger over London Mayor Sadiq Khan’s imminent extension of the city’s Ultra Low Emission Zone could cost them the seat.
Yet rather than downplay the issue, or seek to push the positive case for the plans, Starmer and his team intervened to call on Khan to scrap or delay the policy – something the London mayor was never going to do.
“I never understood the politics of that”, one figure close to Khan told Byline Times.
“If we’d delayed it, all it would have done is make it a much bigger political issue at the mayoral election and the general election. I was baffled by that frankly”.
Far form reassuring Labour voters, Starmer’s intervention merely brought further public attention to the controversy and allowed the Conservatives to claim a huge victory by holding onto a seat that they had held even at the height of Labour’s popularity in 1997.
This points to a wider fear among some in the party that far from being pragmatic, Starmer is actually demonstrating a certain political naivety.
For his critics, while the promise of a “future free from anxiety” clearly has strong political appeal, it also risks underestimating the sheer scale of the challenges the party will face if and when it gets back into Government.
With spiralling borrowing costs and a potential recession on the way, any incoming Government will have to make difficult choices about whether to increase taxes, or further cut the UK’s already crumbling public services after more than a decade of austerity.
Starmer’s position appears to be to refuse this choice and to insist that a Labour government would instead grow the economy out of its current hole.
Yet if the last decade has proven anything, it is that such predictions can rarely be relied upon. With war in Europe, and the growing global challenges of an ageing population, climate change, the rising power of China and the potential disruptive influence of artificial intelligence, it is incredibly unlikely that the new age of security promised by Starmer could persist for long, without the party being forced to take exactly the sort of unpopular choices they are currently refusing to face up to.
As one party source put it, “our strategy is working for now, but I do worry for how long it will be able to”.
At this week’s conference, such concerns were mostly kept on the back-burner with the party’s MPs and members visibly happy to finally be heading back towards Government after a long and painful period in opposition.
But as the party heads ever closer to what they expect to be one of the dirtiest election campaigns ever fought by an incumbent Government, some in the party still fear that Starmer’s safety first approach may ultimately falter.
And as Labour’s bottle drops heavily onto each new step, not everyone is convinced it will really make it all the way down intact.